More Early Years

This period includes the final couple of years living at Grange, my emergence from my wheel-bed to crutches, and my attendance at a ‘real’ school for the first time in my life, in my tenth year. It then covers our move back to Littlehampton, to the fifty acres called “Willow Bank.’  
Living at Grange continued to be a combination of discovery and misery. My education was by correspondence, with Dean, Yvonne and my Mother sharing the ‘teaching’ or supervision roles. Sometimes I would be visited by a head mistress of the correspondence section, and although my learning was steady, and there was much to absorb outside the education system, I did lose a year of study during this period. One highlight of the period was a visit by one of my cowboy heros, the Hollywood actor William Boyd, known to the movie-going world as ‘Hopalong Cassidy”. A near neighbour, on hearing that Hopalong was going to pass nearby in an open car, came to our house and offered to wheel me up to Military Road nearby, to see this legendary (as he was then) movie star.

That was a great thrill, but a few days later the ‘Crippled Children’s Association’ had arranged for many in like condition to myself, to attend the wild west display at the Norwood Oval. Cowboys and Indians rode wildly about the arena, shooting each other off their horses with a lot of blood curdling screams, and I recall a ‘trick shooting’ display, wherein the horsemen would shoot target balloons as they galloped by, firing from under the horse’s necks, under their bellies, and every other combination you could imagine. It was very spectacular. Even more exciting, Hopalong came and shook hands with each of the line of ‘cripples’ in their wheel beds and chairs, including myself. My great eternal regret about that night, was the fact that Hoppy stopped just one bed away from me, and posed for the photographers with an excited boy. How I wished it had been me! One unfortunate spin-off from my Hopalong enthusiasm, was my old man’s labelling of me with the nick-name ‘Drop-along’, a moniker I hated, and which I was to wear for many years as the shortened ‘Drop’. It says a lot about the relationship I was to have with him throughout my life.

In 1956, soon after I had finally managed to start tottering about on crutches, I fronted up to Grange Primary School.

Although still encumbered by a ‘splint’ worn outside the clothing, which strapped around my left ankle, shin, thigh, waist and culminated under my armpits, I was able to hobble the five blocks or so to the school and home each day. Dean had moved on to high school by then, and Lynette and Max were still too young for school, so I was alone. One consolation was Aunty Gwen, married to my father’s brother, Uncle Ken. They had recently moved from their farm near Littlehampton, where my grandmother had raised George, Ken and Don, and their half-brother ‘Chappie.’ Gran Mount, (she had remarried after the death of her first husband in Fremantle, and moved back to her native South Australia) was a wise and wonderful lady, who had outlived her second husband when I first came to know her.

Ken and Gwen lived on High Street, Grange, which was not too far from the school, and which I walked daily. Their children were John, Barbara, Shirley and Kaye, all older than me. Their house was a little oasis for me. Most days I called in for a glass of cordial, and importantly, a rest, after a long day of struggling around on crutches, absorbing the taunts of the other children, and fighting back with whatever means I could. This was generally restricted to spitting at them, hitting out with a crutch, and to lashing them with my tongue. Occasionally I would corner one of my tormentors in a locker room where they could not simply run away, and by then my shoulders had developed considerably, owing to the constant use of crutches, and I was able to hold my own with a bit of biffo. One day, in a quiet lane on my way home, I found myself at close quarters with one of my tormentors, and to his surprise and horror, I jettisoned my crutches and launched myself at him, landing heavily on top of him. I don’t recall him bothering me again. 

Grange Primary School was of course in the suburb of Grange, which I believe was named after Captain Charles Sturt’s cottage, ‘The Grange’ which happened to to be opposite the school. It was (and still is) maintained as a museum. Sturt was the explorer who had undertaken the epic voyage down the river Murray in 1829-30, following the river to its termination of two lakes, the Coorong, and the disappointing outlet to the sea. Nonetheless his explorations revealed much potential for further settlement and colonisation, and he was later to conduct further exploration into Australia’s desert interior (optimistically carting a whaleboat with him, hoping for an inland sea) and was the first to drive cattle from the eastern states to the fledging settlement of Adelaide. Sturt was appointed Surveyor General during his residence in what became the city of Adelaide, and the suburb of Grange. He retired and spent his final years in England. Sturt Street, where we resided, was of course named after him.

My grade four class had fifty three students, and a teacher called Mrs Renfrey. She was a teacher with an enthusiasm for history, and a large plaster relief map of South Australia dominated the front of the class. Her detailed descriptions of Flinder’s voyage along the coast in 1802, as he mapped the coastline and met with the french explorer famously at Encounter Bay, fascinated me, as did her equally vivid description of Sturt’s river trip. I was also particularly excited by her sparse description of Captain Collet Barker’s death by spearing at the Murray Mouth, just over a year after Sturt had visited the area. Mount Barker, named in his honour, was visible from the farmhouse at Littlehampton.

Although this first foray into the wider world had many positive aspects, the time spent at that school was in general very stressful. There was a sadist deputy headmaster who delighted in wielding his cane. One day in an unpaved shelter during lunch, he came across children playing, and he lined everyone in the shed up (except me) and gave them three cuts each across their calfs, for ‘raising dust’. I was also spared the Nuremberg type rally known as the school assembly, sitting in the class room while patriotic chants and allegiance to the queen were chanted, and the raving looney terrified everybody with his hatred from the dais. The stress, the exhaustion, the crowded school room and the preference for the ‘brighter’ students, saw me struggling through the year, and I was convinced that I was destined to spend another year in grade four. The death of my grandfather at Littlehampton was to change that, and before the year was out, we would be moving back to the town of my birth, and living in the house my mother was born in.

There are more random memories of living at Grange before the move to Littlehampton though. At one point we got hold of an old gramophone, (I think from Uncle Ken’s when he moved to the city) which played a collection of 78 records of diverse styles, ages and quality, provided one kept the spring wound up on a regular basis. There were country and western songs, like ‘You Only Have One Mother’ George Formby’s ‘When I’m Cleanin’ Windows’ Fats Domino’s ‘Blueberry Hill’ ‘The Golden Wedding.’ And edging into the ‘hit parade’ in those days more like a weekly event on the radio rather then the wall to wall music of today, a phenomenon called Rock ‘ n Roll. I still have strong memories of music from those days, not only from the records and the radio, but Dean and Yvonne seemed to have quite a repertoire of songs which they taught me, and we sang together. ‘There’s a Hole in the bucket, dear Liza dear Liza…..,.. and ‘He sat by the window and smoked his cigar, smoked his cigar….’ and the like. Other songs like ‘Sixteen Tons’ and ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ were hits on the radio, and I once found my self on front of Mrs Renfrey’s class singing ‘Sixteen Tons,’ a potential budding career which never materialised.

The move to Littlehampton was incremental. Firstly we wound our way up the twisted route, around the Devil’s Elbow, stuck behind the semi’s for miles at a time (it was highway one after all) and into the time/space warp which was Willow Bank every week-end. As well as the clydesdales, we somehow came to be agisting a so called ‘show pony’ which Dean took to riding every week-end. This continued for some time, but one week-end this horse was particularly ‘frisky’ and threw Dean. He was never able to ride it after that. This beautiful tan and white spotted steed became very unpredictable, and could stand docile and be patted, then suddenly begin rearing and lashing out with its hoofs, forcing a very rapid retreat. A couple of years later, when myself and Lyn were too frightened to cross the yard for our evening meal, Mum came rushing out of the house to shoo the horse away, and ended up fleeing for her life to the kitchen. He departed the farm and our lives soon after that.

Somewhere in the middle of 1956, we made the full move back to Littlehampton, and the nightmare of Grange Primary School was behind me.

Returning to Littlehampton to live was the completion of the circle which had taken me away from what ought to have been an ordinary 1950’s childhood. To go to Littlehampton Primary School with an attendance of 100 in total, including my cousin Geoffrey Smith, and twenty to thirty students in my class, (which consisted of grades three and four, under Mrs Scott), was vastly different from the crowded chaos of Grange. I soon found out, with better supervision, that I wasn’t as bad a student I thought myself to be. 

The mornings began with an assembly outside of the main stone building, which contained in two rooms all of the grades from three to seven. We would swear allegiance to Queen and country, (I am an Australian, I love my country, I honour our Queen, I promise to obey her laws) raise the flag, and to drum and fife we would march the twenty or thirty feet or so into the rooms.

Advertisements